The History of Ecuador
Ecuador’s human history dates back thousands of years, and control of this small nation in the northwest corner of South America has changed many times. It evolved from a land of isolated indigenous groups into the mighty Inca civilization, which was conquered in 1532 by the Spanish and consequently liberated from their colonial rule by Simon Bolivar in 1822. As an independent nation, Ecuador has enjoyed relative peace, despite a border conflict with Peru in 1941 which cost Ecuador much of its Amazonian region.
In modern history, although Ecuador is held back by corrupt government leaders and a constant battle against poverty, it has developed as one of South America’s foremost destinations, thanks to its tremendous biodiversity in the four ecological zones and its well preserved colonial culture.
Before the Inca rose to power at the end of the 15th century, various indigenous tribes dotted the landscape of this equatorial region. The Valdivia culture is the earliest known culture, with archaeological artifacts dating back to at least 3,500 B.C. This coastal culture was based in the current province of Santa Elena, however, many researchers believe that the country's human history could go back as far as 10,000 B.C. in the vast expanses of the unexplored Amazon.
As the various tribes spread across the area, the societies became more stratified and trade began to develop. Some of the most notable cultures of the coastal region included the Huancavilca and Manteños, which inhabited what are now the Manabí & Guayas provinces. In the highlands, the ancient Quitu & Cañari cultures are recognized in the names Quito and Cañar, Ecuador’s capital and a highland province, respectively.
The Inca Civilization
By the mid-15th century, the powerful Inca civilization was expanding its kingdom into Ecuador. Led by the warrior Pachacuti and his son Topa Yupanqui in 1463, the mighty Inca armies swiftly took control of much of the land. Although many existing tribes spilled precious blood resisting the advance of the imperial Inca, Huayna Capac had successfully conquered all of Ecuador by the end of the 15th century. At its peak, the Inca empire spread across Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
The Inca are credited as the principal pre-Columbian indigenous civilization thanks to their organization, leadership, and intermarriage policies. Though dominant, the Inca civilization was short-lived. Despite their successful campaigns to establish their empire in the previous century, their impressive forces were no match for the technologically advanced Spanish armies, which arrived to the shores of Ecuador in 1526.
Francisco Pizarro & the Spanish Conquest
When the Spanish first landed in Ecuador in 1526, they had come at a dangerously weak point in the Inca legacy, as smallpox raged across the kingdom and Huayna Capac’s two sons – Atahualpa and Huascar – were battling for power over the land. Between the civil unrest and the many tribes that were already at the brink of rebellion, conditions were ripe for conquest.
When Francisco Pizarro arrived on the northern shores of Ecuador in 1532, his meager crew of 168 men and 27 horses was able to manipulate their way into power and easily vanquish the opposition through a series of surprise attacks, well-played lies, and the tactical advantage of having guns and horses.
Atahualpa had recently beaten his half-brother and established Cajamarca as the new capital when Vicente Valverde and his troops marched into the central plaza. When Atahualpa refused to accept Valverde’s proposition of Christianity as the new religion of the land (whether from a poor translation or indignance is unclear), a hidden contingent of Spanish soldiers kidnapped Atahualpa. Despite offering rooms full of gold and silver for his release, he was executed within a year of his capture. After taking the Inca king, the Spanish ravaged their way across the land, looting, pillaging, and killing, as they established their unrivaled dominance.
Spanish Colonial Rule
By 1544, they had finally established their colonial rule throughout the northwestern tip of South America. After their brutal conquest of the region, the Spanish kept the peace in Ecuador for close to two hundred years. Disease brought from Europe ravaged the indigenous populations, and during the colonization, much of the pre-Columbian culture was lost.
The area that is now Ecuador was then designated as a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, but in 1563, Quito became a powerful political seat for Spain’s colonial control of the region. Currently, Ecuador’s capital of Quito is a relatively small Andean city, but back then its territory extended nearly 500 miles north to Cali (in modern day Colombia), making it a key audience in the colonial era.
It was during the colonial period that a majority of Ecuador’s most recognizable architecture, such as cathedrals and palaces, and its widespread Catholic culture were established. The Ecuadorian Indians were forced to labor for the Spanish, and conditions were oppressive for the natives.
Simon Bolivar & Ecuador’s Liberation
At the turn of the 18th century, Enlightenment ideas were sweeping across the world, and the inequality and oppression of South America’s native population came under fire from political progressives. At the same time, the criollo population (those born of Spanish descent in South America) were increasingly frustrated by the privilege given to those born in Spain. This coincided with a depression in Spain that crippled their economy and weakened their control over their South American colonies.
Jose Joaquin Olmedo took this as a cue to declare Ecuador’s independence at a junta in Guayaquil in 1820. While earlier attempts to unshackle their colonial bonds had failed, Olmedo strategically appealed to Simon Bolivar and San Martin, who were already involved in the liberation of other South American nations. Thanks to their help and the cunning military brilliance of the young general Jose Antonio de Sucre, Ecuador was finally able to win its independence at the victorious Battle of Pichincha in the central Ecuadorian Andes on May 24, 1822.
An Independent Ecuador
In the past two hundred years, Ecuador has had a dynamic history – marred by corrupt leaders and political unrest, but overall a generally peaceful nation. In the eight years immediately succeeding its liberation from Spain, Ecuador formed a part of Simon Bolivar’s Gran Colombia, which included Venezuela and Colombia as well. However, when Venezuela seceded, Ecuador did shortly thereafter.
Ecuador’s first president was the ruthless Juan Jose Flores, who ruled for 15 years between 1830 and 1845 before being ousted and exiled by the opposition. After another 15 years of political turmoil, Gabriel Garcia Moreno took control in 1860. Although many believe that it was his firm and strict leadership based on the Catholic church that held Ecuador together, opponents have demonized his presidency as a tyranny, and he was brutally murdered outside the presidential palace shortly after his third term began.
When Garcia Moreno was assassinated, his successor was opposition leader Eloy Alfaro, from the Radical Liberal Party. Alfaro competed for control of Ecuador with General Leonidas Plaza Gutierrez (of the same party), who ultimately incited a mob that killed Alfaro. Despite leadership differences within the party, the RLP did successfully end Catholicism as the state-mandated religion and helped establish the country’s economy and infrastructure. However, consistent with the country’s tumultuous political history, the Liberal rule of Ecuador came to an end following a series of economic downturns that led to a peaceful coup d’etat in 1925.
Ecuador’s Border Disputes with Peru
One of the most significant conflicts in Ecuador’s modern history was its brief border dispute with Peru in 1941, in which the overwhelming Peruvian forces (numbering some 13,000) invaded the southern and eastern borders of Ecuador. Outmatched by nearly 11,000 troops, the skirmishes lasted for only about three weeks and cost Ecuador around 500 lives and a significant portion of its southern Amazonian provinces. An armistice was then signed, and the Rio de Janeiro Protocol of 1942 yielded approximately 205,000 square kilometers of Ecuador’s rainforest to Peru. Since then, there have been multiple border disputes that have sometimes been violent during the 1960s and most recently in January and February of 1995 (known as the Cenepa War). The conflict was settled once and for all with the peace treaty of 1998, which definitively ended the conflict.
Described as a textbook “banana republic,” Ecuador supports much of its economy with the exportation of bananas and other fruits. However, a larger export for this country is its petroleum, which is drilled at the controversial cost of the precious Amazon territory. One side argues that the lucrative petroleum business helps bring industry and revenue to the country, which indirectly helps the country earn money for social projects that can help the millions of impoverished Ecuadorians. On the other side of this debate, people feel that
At the end of the 20th century, corrupt presidential administrations and unregulated inflation had reached unprecedented levels. By 1999, the Ecuadorian currency had reached 25,000 Sucre to one USD. Finally, the Sucre had become so devalued that the economy crashed, essentially bankrupting the savings of millions of Ecuadorians. To balance the economy, Ecuador switched its official currency to the US dollar. At first, this was a difficult transition for the many citizens who had been left with nothing. Since then, however, the economy has managed to gradually pick itself up and begin to recover.
Contemporary History & Politics
Currently, the President of Ecuador is Rafael Correa, in office since 2007. An economist by trade, he leans left towards socialist policies and has spearheaded major campaigns to develop the country’s infrastructure, including better highways and improved public schools. Like many presidents before him, he rewrote the Constitution at the beginning of his term and has encountered fierce opposition from the conservative right. In 2010, the police attempted a coup and held him hostage in a hospital; the military had to intervene, leaving five officers dead to rescue the president. Since then, criticism from the right has remained steady while support from the left has also wavered.
Between the border conflict in the 1940s and Correa’s term, several prominent political movements happened in Ecuador, including a return to democracy in 1979 under the populist candidate Jaime Roldos. When his plane crashed in 1981, he was succeeded by the vice president and leader of the Christian Democratic Party Oswaldo Hurtado, who lost the 1984 election to Leon Febres Cordero, of the Social Christian Party. Febres Cordero helped usher Ecuador’s economy into the free market, but the 1986 collapse of world oil prices and the 1987 quake in Ecuador were devastating to the petroleum-based economy.
The 1990s saw three presidents – Rodrigo Borja of the Democratic Left (1988-1992), Sixto Duran Ballen (1992-1996), Abdala Bucaram (1996-1997), Fabian Alarcon (1997-1998), and Jalil Mahuad (1998-2000). When the Ecuadorian economy crashed and currency changed to the US dollar, Mahuad was forced to leave office in a military coup d'etat (lead by future president Lucio Gutierrez) and replaced by Mahuad's Vice President Gustavo Noboa (2000-2003). Lucio Gutierrez then served as president from 2003 until he was ousted in 2005 and replaced by his vice president, Alfredo Palacios, who served until Correa’s election in 2007.